From the moment I started diving deep into film, I dreamed of owning my own Rolleiflex. Some people want to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, others Vivien Maier. I fell firmly in the latter camp. My desert island camera is my Rolleiflex 2.8C with its buttery Xenotar lens. But after a couple of years, I experienced something similar to what John Phillips describes in the book The Classic Rollei (an indispensable reference for this article and for all Rolleiflex enthusiasts) as he became more familiar with a later model of a classic camera, “the aura of antiquity had mysteriously lifted and somehow transferred itself to older models in the same line.” Many of us who love cameras for their history as much as their function have also been drawn to that aura. I wanted to see the world through the same viewfinder that someone had peered into in the 1930s, when finding such a viewfinder in a camera that could be held in one hand was still something new.
Rollei’s First 120 Film TLR, the Old Standard
Francke and Heideke were stereo camera manufacturers when they introduced their first twin lens reflex camera, which in design terms was essentially a stereo camera with one end and its taking lens sliced off (literally, in the case of the first prototype) and rotated ninety degrees. The first Rolleiflex was not the Old Standard, but an even older model introduced in 1929 that used 117 film. At that point, 120 film was only numbered for 6×9 frames, so it was impossible to use in a 6×6 camera dependent on a red window for frame spacing. The 117 format is the same width as 120 film, but it came on spools with a much narrower flange, and it’s been out of production for seventy years. The 117 film format’s obsolescence was already becoming apparent in the early ‘30s, and Francke and Heidecke soon introduced the original Rollei’s successor, the Old Standard.
The Old Standard was manufactured from 1932 to 1938. At the time it was merely called the Standard and was only retroactively called the Old Standard after the introduction of the New Standard, manufactured in small numbers from 1939 to 1941.
The Old Standard was the first Rolleiflex that could accept 120 film (which is still the standard medium format film of today), which fit 12 6×6 frames on a roll instead of six. Nothing had changed about the frame numbering on 120 film, but the Old Standard employed a mechanism for setting a counter after viewing the first frame in the red window and winding the following frames automatically. It was not as advanced as the Automat, introduced in 1937, which sensed the start of the roll when it was wound and required no red window at all, but it made 120 film possible to use in a TLR and changed the game for a number of professional photographers who could now easily shoot roll film in a compact, easy to focus camera.
What made the Rolleiflex so innovative was its combination of the combination of a reflex focusing mechanism and the compact size of a roll film camera. Cameras with reflex focusing were available, and there had even been twin lens cameras, but they were large and expensive. Cameras that used roll film were smaller and more affordable, but most of them were either box cameras that didn’t actually focus, or folding cameras with clunky viewfinders and scale focusing. The Rolleiflex integrated the ease of the reflex finder with the small size of 120 film in one portable, relatively affordable package.
Thus the Rolleiflex took off in popularity, and the small firm that had started out manufacturing stereo cameras grew to meet demand. Franke and Heidecke made 95,000 units of the (Old) Standard in six years, and they were adopted by Robert Doisneau, Robert Capa (who used an Old Standard in tandem with a Contax to shoot WWII), Roger Schall, Lee Miller, and other photographers who found the Rolleiflex well suited to press and street photography. Over the next few decades, the Rolleiflex was updated with features that made it even simpler to use, fitted with state-of-the-art multi-coated Zeiss and Schneider lenses, and copied by dozens of other manufacturers who rarely matched the Rollei’s build and image quality, but provided a similar experience to users who couldn’t afford or justify the expense of a Rolleiflex. It was the Old Standard that started it all, and within a few short years it became the iconic representative of twin lens cameras.
My Rolleiflex Old Standard and Variations
Many of these robust cameras still exist and are not terribly expensive. I came across one at KEH in “as-is” condition for a reasonable price, and as it turned out, “as-is” meant functional and cosmetically fairly nice; I suppose they just didn’t want to make any guarantees. This is not to say it’s perfect. There’s a small light leak in the corner of some frames. The viewfinder is difficult to open and close properly while also keeping the magnifier parallel to the ground glass, which is dim, especially in the corners. But the lenses are clean for their age, the shutter fires at more or less the speed it ought to, and the frame spacing is even. There aren’t a lot of other things from the ‘30s, certainly not many cameras, that work as well as this one does.
The Rolleiflex Old Standard came with three different lenses: the 620 model with a 75mm f/4.5 Tessar, the 621 with an f/3.8 lens, and the 622 with an f/3.5 lens. Mine is a 621. One of the first things I did was replace the mirror, as the silvering on these mirrors tends to have deteriorated after eight decades. The other reason for replacing the mirror is that the date of manufacture is inscribed by hand on the original. My Rolleiflex was born on May 9, 1934, seven weeks before the Night of the Long Knives. While we know that the events of the next eleven years ultimately brought about, among even greater tragedies, the bombing of Francke and Heideke’s plant in Braunschweig, I’ll never know what happened to the anonymous artisan who tucked my Rollei’s birth certificate on the underside of its mirror. It’s strange and sobering that of all the cameras that I own, the one with the most personal touch comes from such a dark time in history.
The Rolleiflex Old Standard as a Usable Camera Today
If you’re used to the later Rolleis or any full-featured TLR from the 1950s or later, you’ll find the Rolleiflex Old Standard is compact by comparison. It weighs about 800 grams and feels much smaller than my 2.8C. This is fortunate, because I haven’t yet figured out how to attach a strap, so I just try very hard not to drop it. Everything about the camera is small, including the lenses, which predate the bayonet filter mount system of later Rolleis. It takes 28.5 press-on filters and accessories. I found a correctly sized hood to prevent the worst of flare – because you will get flare – but it’s meant for another camera; the stock hoods are hard to find. There is a seller on eBay who makes molded rubber lens caps based on the original, so I also have one of those.
The Old Standard, like any other Rolleiflex, is simple enough to use. A lever on the bottom of the camera opens the body. Since this isn’t an Automat, you don’t have to remember to fit the film under the roller when you load. What you do need to do, after you wind the film onto the roll and close the camera, is open the hinged cover on the red window on the bottom of the camera and wind until you see the number 1. Then you press the little button on the right side of the camera to set the film counter, and when you wind the camera advances to the next frame automatically.
Focusing is the trickiest part of using the Old Standard for me, because of the dim glass and the finicky viewfinder flaps, which I need my fingernails to tweak open. The focusing knob is on the left side of the camera. There is a focusing scale around it that goes down to 1.7 meters, and it makes another full turn to get to minimum focus. If you want some idea of what depth of field you’ll have at a given aperture, there’s a scale for that when you open up the lid of the viewfinder. The focusing knob is small and knurled and a bit uncomfortable to turn, but mine still works smoothly enough. If you don’t need critical focus, you can use the sports finder to frame your image; fold down the rest of the viewfinder and center your pupil in the tiny mirror in the center, and your image will be framed in the large square. I confess I haven’t really tried this, but it’s a clever way to shoot at eye level and not reversed if you can pre-focus.
Shutter and aperture settings are controlled by levers on either side of the taking lens. (If you forgot your light meter but you can read German, you can use a handy exposure scale on the back of the camera.) The maximum shutter speed is 1/300 of a second, and as with other Rolleis it is inadvisable to set the shutter speed to the highest speed after cocking the shutter. Fortunately, cocking the shutter is still a separate action from winding the film, so you can advance the film before you’ve decided your shutter speed for the next exposure. The shutter lever is under the taking lens and you move it left to cock the shutter and right to fire. At this point it’s a good idea to wind the film unless you want to take a double exposure; there’s nothing else to prevent you from doing so. Take 12 pictures (or twelve and a half, if you take twelve and then wonder if the counter was really on twelve on that last frame – yes, it was), wind through, and you’re done.
So what about the images? If you’re looking for biting sharpness and contrast, you probably already know you want a postwar camera with a coated lens, but pictures from the Rolleiflex Old Standard do have a certain character all their own.
Sharp areas are sharp enough, if not clinically so, at least in the center of the frame, and out of focus areas have gentle and sometimes swirly bokeh. I haven’t shot a lot of portraits with it, but I think it would be especially good for flattering images of people who are patient enough to wait while you focus (not necessarily my children). The f/3.8 aperture is wide enough to provide shallow depth of field but narrow enough that I usually manage to hit focus in good light.
I don’t envision myself shooting with this camera as much as I do with my Rolleiflex 2.8C, which is worth the size and weight difference, but with a little refurbishing it would make a good daily carry or travel camera. I don’t have anything so compact with such good image quality. All it would need is a brighter focusing screen and a CLA to confirm shutter speeds and focus accuracy, and to plug up that light leak. One of the most wonderful things about Rolleis, especially the early ones that are relatively simple mechanically, is that they just work with occasional servicing, and sometimes even without it. For anyone who is mesmerized by the aura of antiquity but also enjoys a camera that is easy to use and produces beautiful images, there are few better cameras to seek than the Rolleiflex Old Standard.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]